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)

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Turning up the Past: The One Who Got Away

Once, at a parents’ evening, a teacher told me that history is an easy subject because it ‘never changes’. Well, I argued with him then, and I’d argue again. There are always new discoveries that constantly change how we view the past, and when I was writing my new book I was barely able to keep up. In fact, in one case the announcement came too late for me to include the details in the book.

I was already aware of the dig at Coldingham, where Dig Ventures were trying to find traces of the original Anglo-Saxon abbey. By the time I visited to take photos for the book, they were long gone, their trenches filled in. But the results came in thick and fast while I was writing the book. 

Coldingham, showing the dig site

The abbess about whom I was writing is known as Æbbe of Coldingham, but the location of her monastery was originally said to be at Coludi urbs (St Abbs Head, Berwickshire). Here, high up on a place now known as Kirk Hill, it is thought that the original monastery, a collection of ‘beehive’ huts, was built in the mid-seventh century.

St Abbs - looking across to Kirk Hill

St Abbs is about two miles from Coldingham, where a later, Benedictine, monastery was built for a community of monks in the eleventh century. The proximity to Coldingham would explain the naming of Æbbe’s monastery, of which all traces have been lost.

In March 2019, results were published of radiocarbon dating which shows that material sent for analysis from a dig at Coldingham Priory can be dated to between 660 and 880. There is a high probability, therefore, that there was an original Anglo-Saxon monastery on the same site, directly underneath the remains of the later medieval priory. As I sent the book off to the publisher, investigation was still ongoing, but it could yet prove that Æbbe of Coldingham’s abbey was indeed further inland than St Abbs and situated in Coldingham itself.

Another early abbess to feature in the book was Æthelburh, although she didn’t spend her whole adult life as a holy woman. She was the daughter of a king of Kent and she travelled north to marry King Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin had been sent into exile when a rival king invaded and married (most likely without her permission) Edwin’s sister. Through her, he had sons, two of whom became kings of Northumbria. Edwin was killed in battle and not long afterwards, one of his nephews, Oswald, came to claim the throne. It seems that Æthelburh felt unsafe so she returned to Kent with her children and step-grandson. She appears to have been given land there by her brother, who was now king of Kent, where she founded the abbey at Lyminge. 

Again, while I was still writing the book, the latest news came in from the Lyminge Archaeology Project, detailing their discoveries about the fabric of the original Anglo-Saxon church.

It appeared that the chancel was separated from the nave by a triple arch, which seems to be a Kentish style (See here for more) and the archaeologists were able to deduce that stone from a fragment of a column was imported from the continent. The conclusion was that the architectural style made it likely to  be the church founded by Æthelburh. Imagine my delight when I saw what they had uncovered, just as I was writing about this lady.

The Lyminge Excavation (Image Credit)

One of the most famous abbesses of the seventh century is Æthelthryth, founder of Ely Abbey. There’s a lot of information about her in the writings of Bede, and in the Liber Eliensis (the history of Ely Abbey). In summary, she was married twice, first to a nobleman of the South Gyrwe, and secondly to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, nephew of the afore-mentioned Oswald. There’s a great tale about how she, anxious to preserve her virginity, escaped Ecgfrith’s clutches (see my recent post on the EHFA blog for the details) and many miracles were associated with her. As the book was going through edits and proofs, news came to light that the site of St Æthelthryth’s abbey at Ely had been found. Archaeologists pinpointed the site of the original building in the precinct of the abbey, having uncovered a boundary ditch. Obviously I will be following this story with keen interest.

Image credit
But it wasn’t just the religious ladies of the seventh century who hit the news. The story of the blue-toothed nun hit the headlines, again while I was writing the book. I’d been researching the history of Whitby Abbey, where there was an extensive library and evidence of female scribes producing copies of books. Suddenly my newsfeed was full of stories about a case in Germany where the remains of a nun were found to have flecks of blue on the teeth. It’s possible that she might have lived as long ago as the tenth century and the conclusion was that she was an illuminator, a skilled one at that, working with a pigment made from lapis lazuli and licking her paintbrush while she worked. Yet more evidence of female literacy and the existence of female scribes and illuminators.

Queen Emma - Encomium Emma Regina

Those who are familiar with the Anglo-Saxon period  won’t be surprised to learn that a large portion of the book focuses on the career of Emma, married to not one but two kings of England, Cnut, and Æthelred the Unready. She lived a long and full life and there is far more information about her than some of the other women featured, so tracking her down was not hard. She had sons by both her husbands, although for a short while she seems to have forgotten about the one who eventually became Edward the Confessor. Once he was king, her career was effectively over, but not for her a quiet retirement to an abbey and she lived out her years on her lands in Winchester. I’ve studied her life on and off over the years and nothing I turned up was a real revelation. Except that, once again, I had to add a footnote to the effect that while I was writing the book, news emerged from Winchester Cathedral that the bones of over twenty individuals found in mortuary chests might include the skeleton of Emma.

Mortuary Chest (Image Credit)

At least I was able, in some form or another, to mention these discoveries. There was one that ‘got away’ though. Before publication, but after everything had been signed off and sent to the printers, I was alerted to the news story that scientific tests on human remains kept for centuries in the church of St Mary and St Eanswyth in Folkestone, Kent, suggested that they are likely to be those of Eanswyth herself. 

Image by Mark Hourahane

Who was Eanswyth? Well, according to the Kentish Royal Legend, she was the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent. Which means that she was the niece of Æthelburh, founder of Lyminge. If these bones really are those of Eanswyth then they are - so far - the earliest identified remains of an English saint and the only verified remains of any member of the illustrious Kentish royal family, whom I’ve written about so much. It would have been so wonderful to be able to include the details of this discovery in the book, but sadly it was not to be.

But to that teacher who insisted that history doesn’t change? I’d say, on the contrary, I could barely keep up!

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is available now at
Pen & Sword Books

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Old English Female Names and their Meanings

As I’ve found myself saying quite a lot recently, my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, features over 130 named women. Looking at the index puts a certain Christmas tune in my head: 8 Ælfgifus, 7 Æthelburhs, 6 Eadburhs, 5 Ælfflæds, 4 Cyneburhs, 3 Ealdgyths, 2 Wynflæds, and a partridge in a … okay, maybe not, but you get the idea!

Sometimes, these Old English names cause a problem, especially when so many people appear to have the same, or similar name. For me, it’s no different from the Williams and Richards of the Anglo-Norman period (apparently, when Henry the Young King (eldest son of Henry II) held his Christmas court in Normandy in 1171, it was said that the guests included no fewer than 110 knights all called William.*) or even the court of Henry VIII where More, Wolsey, Cranmer, Cromwell, Boleyn, Tallis and many others were all called Thomas.

However, the pre-Conquest names are less familiar because they essentially come from another language. Helpfully, though, they are almost always made up of two elements, which are translateable.

If we look at the first elements:

Ælf  - this one means elf
Æthel - noble
Cyne - kingly, so - royal
Ead - happy, blessed
God - God
Leof - dear, loved
Mild - gentle, meek
Wulf - Wolf. 

And the second elements:

Burh - town (fortified). It has been suggested that it might have been symbolic of the expectation for women to defend them.**
Flæd - beauty
Gifu - gift
Gyth - war
Swith - strong
Thryth - strength

Then we can start to put some names together. 

Æthelgifu - noble gift
Leofgifu - beloved gift

Ælfthryth - elf strength
Wulfthryth - wolf strength

And so on.

Along with wulf, it’s clear that the female name elements aren’t all ‘sugar and spice’: burh, thryth, swith and gyth are all quite forceful.

And, like wulf, some elements are used for both female and male names, but they are usually the first element. So ead (happy, blessed) could be used for a king - Eadgar, Eadweard (Edward) or for a king’s wife - Eadgyth (Edith).

After a while, you begin to notice that certain names are male, and certain are female. By and large, the difference lies with the second element. Beorht (bright), ræd (counsel - often presented as red), weard (guardian), frith (peace), wine (friend); these are male name elements. 

So it becomes easier to recognise them. If I see a load of Æthel names in a book index, I can skim straight to the female names, ignoring Æthelred, Æthelfrith, Æthelberht, and concentrating on finding Æthelthryth, Æthelflæd or Æthelgifu.

But don’t be thrown by names which look female - they usually aren’t if they end in ‘a’ - such as Anna or Goda, both male names. Any Old English female names ending that way have usually been modernised. Æthelflæd is sometimes presented as Ethelfleda, while Godgifu becomes Godiva. Once you understand that the 'g' in gifu is soft, and that the 'u' is more of an 'a' sound, then Godgifu to Godyifa to Godiva is quite logical.

Of course, as with all periods, certain names were more popular at times than others. In the seventh century, the Æthel element was less commonly used, so that Æthelred of Mercia stands out among his brothers Merewalh, Wulfhere, Peada, and his father Penda (note the male 'a' endings again with those last two). 

But get to the late ninth century onwards and the nobility is awash with Æthels and Ælfs. There’s one anomaly and she takes up a large portion of the book. She’s not an Æthel or an Ælf, and her name actually does end in 'a'. Her name was Emma, and she was from Normandy. She married two kings of England, first Æthelred the Unready, and then Cnut. The English though, gave her a new name: Ælfgifu. Of course they did! But at least we can work out what it means!

*Thanks to Charlene Newcomb for this nugget
 **Barbara Yorke  Æthelflæd Conference, Tamworth 2018

Friday, 17 April 2020

The 'Evil' Women of Mercia

Adultery, poison, witchcraft, murder, incitement to murder, and being murdered. Exciting times for the noblewomen of Mercia...

King Edward receives a drink before his stepmother kills him

In my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I wrote about two such women: one stood accused of romping three-in-a-bed with her husband (the king) and her own mother, and being too closely related to her husband. The other stood accused variously of being complicit in the murder of her first husband, of torturing and then murdering an abbot, of being in an adulterous relationship with her second husband, (king, and brother of the previously mentioned king) and finally of colluding in the murder of her stepson, who succeeded her husband as king.

King Edgar meets, and is enchanted by, Ælfthryth

One of these women had no connection with Mercia, but her husband did. One might almost say that he wouldn't have become king without Mercian help. The other lady may well have been related not only to Alfred the Great, but also to a great Mercian family too. I've examined the primary sources and come to my own conclusions about these stories. But they are by no means the only women to be afforded such notoriety.

These women featured in my book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom published in hardback by Amberley in 2018 and due out in paperback later this year, and recently I've been reacquainting myself with them and a few other 'evil' women, for my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, due out on May 30 from Pen and Sword Books. On the face of it, the following women are deserving of the epithet 'evil'. 

Allow me to introduce them:

Alhflæd was the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda of Mercia. The kings met on the battlefield in 655, and Oswiu was the victor. And yet, for all that these two kingdoms were bitter enemies during the seventh century, there was a lot of inter-marriage between the two royal houses. Penda's son married Oswiu's daughter, and Oswiu's daughter married Penda's son. This son was named Peada, and Bede remembered him for converting the peoples over whom he was made king, the Middle Angles, to Christianity. According to Bede:
He asked for the hand of [Oswiu's] daughter Alhflæd ... and gladly declared himself ready to become a Christian. He was earnestly persuaded to accept the faith by Alhfrith, son of King Oswiu, who was his brother-in-law and friend. (HE iii 21)
It might be nice to think of these young royals all getting on famously well, but only around three years later, Peada was dead, 'slain', according to one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and specifically by his wife according to Bede, who said that he was murdered:
by the treachery, or so it is said, of his wife during the very time of the Easter festival (HE iii 24)
Yet another marriage took place between the two families, this time between the last of Penda's sons to become a king in Mercia, Æthelred, and the daughter of Oswiu and his second wife. This daughter was called Osthryth. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was in 697 that 'the Southumbrians slew Osthryth, Ethelred's queen and Ecgfrith's [King of Northumbria] sister.'

No explanation is given for the murder. It is known that Osthryth oversaw the removal of the bones of St Oswald, her uncle, to the abbey at Bardney, in an area where he might not have been that fondly remembered. Oswald had been an enemy of Mercia, so perhaps they didn't like her highlighting his memory, but this seems a poor excuse for killing her. Was it retribution for her half-sister's murderous act? Again, it seems a bit of an over-reaction, especially given the amount of time which had elapsed.

Image of St Oswald in Durham Cathedral

It must, however, have been a tense situation, given that her husband had waged war on her brother, and in the ensuing battle, another brother of hers had been killed. Bede noted that this young man was about eighteen years of age, and beloved in both kingdoms.  

It's clear that even while these marriages were occurring, the two royal houses were still bitterly opposed to one another and that there were conflicting loyalties. It is perhaps in this context that the murder should be viewed, but whatever she had done, or been accused of, we shall never know.

Eadburh's crimes, on the other hand, were written down in great detail, and publicised. She was the daughter of King Offa, and she was married to Beorhtric, king of Kent, whom she accidentally poisoned. Asser, writing the Life of King Alfred, was scathing indeed of this woman, who had behaved 'like a tyrant after the manner of her father'. She loathed all of her husband's friends, and decided to kill them with poison:
This is known to have happened with a certain young man very dear to the king, whom she poisoned when she could not denounce him before the king. King Beorhtric himself is said to have taken some of that poison unawares: she had intended to give it not to him, but to the young man; but the king took it first and both of them died as a result. (Asser Ch 14)
The murderess then went to the court of Charlemagne, who established her as abbess of a large convent. But this irredeemable woman apparently lived even more recklessly than before, and was caught 'in debauchery' with a man of her own race, and having been ejected from the nunnery, died in poverty. Asser claimed to have heard this story from witnesses who saw her begging in the streets.

Eadburh's crimes though seem rather run-of-the-mill compared with the next 'evil' woman on this list.

After Offa's death, the Mercian throne passed briefly to his son, Ecgfrith, who reigned for only a few months. He was succeeded by Coenwulf, who reigned until 821.

After this, things get a little hazy. What we do know is that Coenwulf had a son, Cynehelm, and a daughter, Cwoenthryth. William of Malmesbury recorded that:
At Winchcombe rests Cenwulf [Coenwulf] with his son Kenelm [Cynehelm]. At the age of 7 the boy had been left by his father to be brought up by his sister. In her greed, she entertained the illusory hope of the throne, and assigned the job of eliminating her little brother to the retainer who looked after him. He took the innocent child off on the pretence of a hunt, killed him, and hid him in some bushes. (Gesta Pontificum iv 156 3) 
So far, so traditional. But this concealment was for naught, because a piece of parchment, carried by a dove, floated down onto the altar of St Peter in Rome, revealing the whereabouts of the body. Thus the body was carried to Winchcombe and when the murderess saw what was happening, she began chanting a psalm backwards as some kind of evil spell, but by God's power her eyes were torn from their sockets, with blood splattering to an extent that William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, proclaimed, 'the bloodstains are there to this day.'

Detail from a page of the Winchcombe Psalter

There is very little recorded evidence about Cynehelm, and all we really know is that he existed, and predeceased his father. His sister had been in dispute with the Church over monastic property. Unlikely, then, that she was to be remembered fondly in William's Gesta Pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops of England). 

For those beginning to think that there was either huge prejudice among the chroniclers against Mercian women, or indeed that these women were all deserving of opprobrium, let's not forget one woman who surely must have broken that mould, if it existed. Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians features in both my nonfiction books and in my novel, To Be A Queen. No accusations of murder of evil deeds there. Not by her, anyway...

[all above images are in the Public Domain]

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is available for pre-order now

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available as an e-book and the paperback is available for pre-order now.

To read more about Oswiu, Oswald, Penda et al, try my latest novel Cometh the Hour 

To read the fictionalised account of the two infamous queens who scandalised tenth-century England, read Alvar the Kingmaker

And to read the fictionalised story of Æthelflæd, try To Be A Queen