Thursday, 9 August 2018

Captive Nuns

Anglo-Saxon abbesses were often members of royal families. Penda, the famously pagan king of seventh-century Mercia, had at least two daughters who became abbesses and were subsequently created saints. Oswiu of Northumbria promised his infant daughter to the Church if God would grant him victory in battle. St Æthelthryth, despite being married twice - once to a king - managed, we're told, to preserve her chastity and founded the abbey at Ely. Her sister succeeded her there as abbess. Both were daughters of King Anna of East Anglia.

St Æthelthryth

A noble and pious occupation. These were wealthy women, and no doubt lived comfortably. But safely? Not always. These women belonged to prestigious royal houses, and there are a few instances which prove that being an abbess, or nun, or merely a noblewoman living in an abbey, was to be vulnerable. Yes, such places were raided by invaders, but sometimes the perpetrators came from a little closer...

I've been looking into this subject in preparation for my new book - details much later - so I'll save any analysis for that. But here, in case you don't know the stories, are three examples of high profile abduction of nuns:

The first of these cases involved the family of Alfred the Great. When Alfred succeeded his elder brother to the throne, that brother had left a - presumably very young - son, Æthelwold. With hindsight, it was probably a good job that Alfred took the throne, and even though the 'Viking' wars were still raging when Alfred died, he left the kingdom of Wessex in the very safe hands of his son, Edward the Elder.

By this stage, Æthelwold was a grown man, and decided to make his own bid for the throne, with the aid of the Northumbrian 'Vikings'.  Initially, though, Æthelwold took his forces to Wimborne, and holed up there with a nun whom he had kidnapped, stating that he would live there or die. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the woman had been taken 'without the king's permission and contrary to the bishops' orders - for she had been consecrated a nun.'

Wimborne Minster by Bellminsterboy via CC Commons

It may be that the lady was in fact a nun from Wimborne. It has been suggested that she was none other than Alfred's daughter, Æthelgifu. Some historians think that Æthelwold married the captive lady, while others are not convinced. Her identity is not proven, nor is it established that a marriage took place, but whatever the truth, it seems clear that Æthelwold's actions were driven by a desire to strengthen his claim to the throne. This woman, whatever her identity, was clearly of high status and politically important.

His threat, to live there or die, was not carried out. He escaped in the night and went to join the Viking army in Northumbria, who swore allegiance to him as their king. 

In 902 Æthelwold and his East Anglian Viking allies harried Mercia and went as far as Cricklade in Wiltshire. When he crossed the Thames into Wessex, Edward chased him, harrying in Essex and East Anglia, ‘all their lands between the Dykes and the Ouse, as far north as the fens.’ When Edward then ordered a withdrawal, he sent seven messengers to the men of Kent, who lingered behind, counter to his commands. The Danish army then overtook the men of Kent at the – unidentified - Holme. In the ensuing fighting, there were losses on both sides. Two are significant: one being the father of Edward’s future wife and the other being Æthelwold himself.

The second case concerns King Edgar, a little later in the tenth century. Edgar's marital history is a little hazy, with some people thinking he had children by three women, two of whom were his wives, while others - including me - are not so convinced that his first 'wife' even existed.

King Edgar

Edgar’s second ‘woman’ and possibly wife, was Wulfthryth, later Saint Wulfthryth, who might have been promised to the Church before Edgar impregnated her. William of Malmesbury said that she ‘initially was not fully professed as a nun of Wilton, but assumed the veil for fear of Edgar, but had it torn off before being forced into the king’s bed. Edgar was reproved by St Dunstan and served seven years of penance. As for her, once Eadgyth (Edith) was born, she returned to the nunnery.’ 

William (c. 1095- c. 1143) is not the only source of these stories, although none is contemporary. Osbern of Canterbury (c.1050-1090) said that the baby Edward was the son of a professed nun of Wilton, whose seduction earned Edgar a seven-year penance. 

Eadmer (c.1060-1126) believed his contemporary, Nicholas of Worcester, that Edward was the son of Æthelflæd Eneda, Edgar’s supposed first wife, and thus not born of a consecrated nun, and tells the story of the seduction of the young laywoman and says his offence was worse because he already had a lawful wife. ‘For on a certain occasion this same king came to a monastery of virgins, which is located at Wilton, and there, captivated by the beauty of a certain young girl, who took her lineage from the English nobility and was being raised and protected by the nuns though she had not taken the veil, he ordered her to be brought to him secretly to speak with him.

Edith of Wilton, Edgar's daughter
While she was being led to him out of fear for her chastity she placed a veil snatched from one of the nuns on her own head, hoping in this way to protect herself should the king by chance wish to demand anything dishonourable from her. When Edgar saw her wearing the veil he said, “How suddenly you have become a nun.” He grabbed and dragged the veil from her head while she resisted in vain with whatever strength she had.’ 

Goscelin of Saint-Bertin (born before the 1040s) wrote in his Life of St Wulfhild, that it was she (Wulfhild) who became the object of Edgar’s attentions, resisting by escaping naked down a sewer, and that he took Wulfthryth, a laywoman being educated by the nuns, instead. He presents her as Edgar’s wife.

Thus there seems to be some confusion, and Edgar was described by William of Malmesbury as being ‘libidinous in respect of virgins’. But if Edward was Wulfthryth’s son, he was certainly considered of high enough birth that the Witan had no qualms in electing him king upon his father’s death, even though his reign was short and unhappy. 

The third of these cases moves us into the eleventh century and into the reign of Edgar’s grandson, Edward the Confessor. During Edward’s reign, the Godwin family reached the peak of its political power. But 1046 saw the first acts of disobedience from within the family’s ranks, as Swein teamed up with Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, king of Gwynedd and Powys, and went into South Wales. On the way back, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ‘ordered the abbess of Leominster to be brought to him, and he kept her as long as he pleased, and then let her go home.’ In revenge for being forced to give her up, he deprived the church of Worcester of a number of estates. 

Leominster Priory Church by Captain Jae
From John of Worcester: ‘Meanwhile, Earl Swein, son of Earl Godwine and Gytha who had left England earlier because he was not permitted to marry Eadgifu, abbess of the convent at Leominster, whom he had seduced, went to Denmark, and returned with eight ships, saying dishonestly that he would henceforth remain faithful to the king.’ 

What might we make of the statement that he ‘kept her as long as he pleased’? Was she kept against her will, or was she a willing concubine?

Eadgifu was, according to one source,  with Swein for about a year: ‘A tantalising note in 1086 Domesday Book says: "The Abbess holds Fencote. She held it herself before 1066." Fencote, in Docklow parish, had belonged to Leominster nunnery. Was Eadgifu given Fencote? Did she retire here and was she still living here in 1086 with her memories of Swein?' (Blanche Parry - Absolute Herefordshire)

It is thought that the abbey was suppressed after Eadgifu’s abduction (David Knowles - The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales 940-1216.)

So it does seem that even in times of relative peace (Edgar’s reign was known for its lack of ‘viking’ raiding) it does seem that to be an abbess, or even a nun, was still a hazardous occupation.

As I said at the beginning of the post, these stories have a little to do with my next writing project, but all are mentioned in my new history of Mercia, available for pre-order now.

It's also available to pre-order direct from Amberley Publishing


  1. St Æthelthryth's story reminds me of one of the tales in the Decameron in which a princess who has had nine lovers manages to convince her eventual husband that she's a virgin.

    1. Ah, gosh, I'd forgotten that! I never really believed in Æthelthryth's virginity but I've just been reading a book which suggests that her husband might not have been too sad to see the back of her, given that, for whatever reason, the union produced no children.

  2. Most of these cases are obviously not 'seductions' but rape. If a young women disuises herself as a nun but gets her veil torn off and another escapes naked into a sewer...there is no seduction there.

    1. Indeed. Although it's hard to know how much truth there is in the stories concerning Edgar. They are all rather garbled and come from later, Anglo-Norman sources. If it's true, then it's scandalous, but I have my doubts, in his case.